‘Dreadful dreadfulness’

The InnocentsBe prepared to be scared. Really scared. Not jump-out-of-your-seat ‘Jaws’ scared.  Not blood-drenched ‘Carrie’ scared. Not even, I’m-never-getting-into-a-shower-that’s-got-a-plastic-curtain-again ‘Psycho’ scared. Be prepared to be creepily, hauntingly, recurrently scared.

Still with us and not hiding behind the sofa? Then get along to the Courtyard’s two screenings later this month of a BFI-restored copy of the British black and white classic The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton and with matchless cinematography by Freddie Francis.

Based on a minor Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw, first published in 1898, this gothic chiller has formed the basis of five other movies, countless European TV productions, a graphic novel and a BBC radio drama, a stage play, a ballet and an opera by Benjamin Britten. “Nothing at all that I know,” observed the author immodestly of his story, “touches it for dreadful dreadfulness”.

Demure, repressed Deborah Kerr plays the young governess Miss Giddens, who is hired by the guardian of his young orphaned wards, Miles and Flora, to go and live with them at Bly, his country estate. The fourth member of this isolated little community is the stolid housekeeper Mrs Grose. But it soon transpires that the quartet is sharing this huge gothic pile with two malevolent supernatural residents.

So why has it taken more than half a century for this cinematic classic to be recognised? At the time of its release in 1961, big colourful wide-screen movies were the public’s preferred entertainment diet. West Side Story swept the board that year, collecting 10 Oscars. The Innocents, with its sparse, hugely-understated storyline, in which the viewer’s imagination has to go into overdrive to solve the riddles and clues, was clearly not to everyone’s taste. The English Heritage-managed Sheffield House in Sussex provided the bulk of the location shots, but its Capability Brown-designed gardens also play a major role, hauntingly brought to the screen through the ‘long focus’ technique which was Freddie Francis’s hallmark.

If further recommendation is needed, no less an authority on great cinema than the director Martin Scorsese has nominated The Innocents as one of the 10 all-time scariest movies.

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Together with the screening of Czech director Jan Svankmajer’s 1994 Faust (23 January) and Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (11 February), the two screenings of The Innocents (22 January) form the trilogy of The Courtyard’s ‘Discovering Gothic’ winter film season.

Gravity: a space epic

Gravity film stillRecycling critics’ opinions of productions in order to get the punters in is nothing new. Victorian playhouses would be festooned with playbills quoting rave notices. Today’s film distributors seem happy just to quote the number of stars awarded to their movies (why is it that Empire gives every film that’s ever been made five stars?), but the producers of the space thriller Gravity set a new gold standard when this gripping adventure was released in November. Booking a series of double-page spreads in national newspapers and magazines, they simply printed rows of five white stars (plus attributions) on a black background: 16 five-star clusters. It was like an aerial view of the saluting dais at a Soviet May Day parade.

Is Gravity that good? Indubitably, though this critic’s advice would be to try to experience it in an Imax in 3D, with the sound cranked up so that the floor shakes.  As Mark Kermode memorably observed, after staggering out of the film’s preview: “If you aren’t mesmerised by the look of Gravity, then maybe it’s time for you to stop going to the cinema.”

If you do get to see Gravity under optimum conditions, you will most certainly leave the cinema a more humble human being, profoundly moved by the epic majesty of our solar system. This experience is greatly enhanced by Steven Price’s soaring electronic score, quite the best space music since Vengelis’ backing for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

Director Alfonso Cuaron’s giant achievement is a very simple – and at 90 minutes not overlong – story, with just two actors, one of whom only appears in the first half of the movie. A medical engineer on her first space mission (Sandra Bullock) and a veteran astronaut (George Clooney) are carrying out routine maintenance on the Hubble space telescope, when they receive an urgent warning from NASA that a Russian missile collision with a redundant satellite has produced a huge shower of space debris which is rapidly approaching the orbiting telescope. The ensuing ‘debris storm’ is as scary as the news footage of the Japanese tsunami and this year’s Filipino typhoon all rolled into one jaw-dropping sequence. The film then charts the astronauts’ frantic attempts (with finite amounts of oxygen left to survive on) to travel to an unmanned Chinese satellite and liberate its return module to get back to earth.

Gravity will almost certainly feature in next February’s Oscars – particularly for Tim Webber’s virtuosic computer-generated visual effects. If Kubrick’s 2001 was a space odyssey, then Gravity is a space epic.

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Screenings at the Courtyard until 4 December

Hit the road, Jack

Almost all the 20th century’s great film directors have, at one time or another, been drawn to the road movie: the Coen brothers, Fellini, John Ford, Walter Hill, Sam Mendes, Peckinpah, Arthur Penn, Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Spielberg, Wim Wenders. Alfred Hitchcock always remained in thrall of the Permanent Way. The 1953 Palme d’or winner ‘Wages of Fear’, starring a craggy Yves Montand, stands out as a European exemplar, although the film is set in South America. Rarely seen on TV or art house circuits, this classic deserves a BFI restoration and re-release.

The genre’s two most enduring themes are the lure of the open road – which must be embarked on without map or compass – and the need to escape, often from some unstated horror. Scott’s ‘Thelma and Louise’ easily heads the first category, while Spielberg’s ‘Duel’, chillingly tops the latter bill.

Arthur Penn’s recently-restored classic period piece ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ is certainly worthy of conclusion, while ‘Easy Rider’, starring Peter Fonda and a very stoned Jack Nicholson, and ‘Two-Lane Blacktop’ both went on to become hippie cult movies. Walter Hill’s ‘The Driver’ (which includes a breathtaking cops-and-robbers car pursuit, with an angelic-faced Ryan O’Neill outsmarting and demolishing no less than eight police cars) remains the definitive urban car chase. Cops as baddies chase hippie biker heroes in ‘Electra Glide in Blue’, while ‘Vanishing Point’ runs ‘The Driver’ a close second for stunt driving. And we can hardly conclude this road movie roll-call without mentioning the joyously quirky ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ which features a singing George Clooney and 19 wonderful blue grass tracks. According to the Coens, they based the story on Homer’s Odyssey!

Fifty-five years after its publication (and five years in the making), the film of Jack Kerouac’s Bible of the Beat Generation, ‘On the Road’ has finally arrived. Whether it is destined for the pantheon of great road movies is a moot point.

In 1962 Kerouac wrote to Marlon Brando, urging him to star in a film version; Brando was to play his alter ego, with Kerouac casting himself as Neal Cassidy. Brando ignored the letter. A decade later, Francis Ford Coppola bought the film rights and since then at least five film treatments have been prepared at his Zoetrope production studios, with everyone from Brad Pitt to Sean Penn and Dennis Hopper to Russell Crowe being considered for the leads.

Director Walter Salles’ first road movie, in 2004, was ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’, the poignant record of Che Guevara’s South American travels six years before the Cuban revolution. The Kerouac saga employs the same documentary-naturalism style.  Locations chosen by Salles include Argentina, Chile, Canada, Mexico, Arizona, Calgary, Louisiana, Nebraska and San Francisco. Little wonder Zoetrope’s $25m budget sprang a leak during filming, resulting in Kristen Stewart volunteering to take a pay cut.

Aspiring writer and sexual ingénue Sal Paradise (aka Kerouac), hunky Dean Moriarty (aka Neal Cassidy) and poetic jester Carlo Marx (aka Allen Ginsberg) head for the open highway and unbridled hedonism, with Dean moving effortlessly in and out of marriages, separations, parenthood and divorces with child brides Emylou and Camille. There are two delightful stand-out cameos: Viggo Mortensen as Old Bull Lee (aka a gruff, gun-toting William Burroughs) and Coati Mundi as the gibberish-singing Slim Gaillard.

Scenically, this is no National Geographic TV channel documentary of the rolling plains of the mid-west. Indeed, Eric Gautier’s hand-held camerawork seems more preoccupied with the interior of the trusty Hudson and its occupants than the landscapes their highways take them across. But perhaps the biggest disappointment is the film’s soundtrack – a strange melange of forgettable pop, jazz and folk – which fails to showcase greats like Bird, Miles, Mulligan and Dizzy, to whom these cats would surely have been grooving on the road and on the juke boxes of all the diners they stopped at.

To coincide with the film’s UK release, the British Library is showing (until 27 December) the original manuscript of ‘On the Road’. In April 1951, after his cross-continental adventure, Kerouac taped together eight rolls of blank teletype paper to form a continuous 150ft-long ‘scroll’. This he loaded into his typewriter, completing the novel in only 20 days of continuous, caffeine-fuelled typing.

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‘On the Road’, starring Sam Riley as Sal Paradise, Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty and Kristen Stewart as Marylou, is at the Courtyard, Hereford, from 17–22 November and at Ludlow Assembly Rooms on 21 & 22 November.

Shrinking Palestine

Banksey Gaza

In one of the last major exhibitions of his work before his death last year, the father of British pop-art Richard Hamilton hung a striking digitally-printed triptych in one of the main spaces in London’s Serpentine Gallery. With simple cartographical shapes it replicated the change in Palestinian land tenure over the second half of the 20th century: post-Balfour in 1946; in 1967 after the Six Day War; and the present position. In those 66 years, the region’s Jewish-Arab population ratio has climbed from 44:56 to the current 87:13.

And if you want some more harrowing statistics, try these: last year 495 Palestinian houses were razed to the ground, over 18,000 of their olive trees were uprooted, and 4,000 acres of land was ‘confiscated’ to make way for the construction of 26,837 new ‘settler homes’. According to one Herefordian who recently visited the region, the take-up of these flashy new concrete apartment blocks is predominantly by Americans.

Palestine’s contracting geography, combined with its people’s struggle to protect scarce agricultural land and water supplies, are recurring themes in many Palestinian films, such as Carolina Riva’s poignant ‘The Colour of Olives’, Elia Suleiman’s highly original ‘The Time that Remains’, ‘The Iron Wall’, Hana Elias’ Oscar-nominated ‘The Olive Harvest’ and ‘Rachel’, a moving documentary dedicated to the American peace worker Rachel Corrie, who was crushed to death by a land-clearing Israeli bulldozer in 2003.

In April, UK activists were heartened by the news that the Co-Operative Group – this country’s fifth largest food retailer – plans to cease trading with companies that export food products emanating from illegal Israeli settlements. The campaign was orchestrated by Boycott Israel Network, which says that staple retail products likely to disappear from your local Co-op’s shelves will include new potatoes, citrus fruits and mangoes, fresh herbs and even bunches of cut flowers. To avoid any legal backlash to its controversial decision, the supermarket group is at pains to stress that the move is not an Israeli goods boycott, since it intends to continue to do business with Israeli-owned companies who can guarantee that they don’t export from illegal settlements.

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All aboard!

Since pre-talkies, the railways have provided an inexhaustible backdrop for the movies.  Murder, mayhem and matters of the heart seem to be perfect themes when played out in, on top of or around trains and train stations.

Closely Observed Trains

Billy Wilder’s ‘Some Like it Hot’ frequently tops all-time favourite polls. Surely no actor (Jack Lemon) ever had so much fun on camera in a sleeper compartment with six actresses and a hot water bottle.  And few women (of a certain age), on hearing the Rachmaninov piano concerto on Classic FM, fail to go into a trance about caddish Trevor Howard in ‘Brief Encounter’.  “I seem to have a spec of dirt in my eye”; “May I take a look – I’m a doctor?”  Swoon.

Murderous intent was hatched in Hitchcock’s ‘Strangers on a Train’; and the film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s ‘Ripley’s Game’ (recently given a TV outing) includes one of the most gruesome triple killings on a train ever filmed.  ‘Throw Momma from the Train’ (the cast have been motivated by the plot of ‘Strangers on a Train’) is a jet-black comedy, though lovers of the macabre will also marvel at Alexander Macendrick’s method of cadaver disposal in ‘The Ladykillers’.

Narrowing the choice down to that single DVD to take to the desert island, this critic would probably opt for the utterly charming ‘Closely Observed Trains’, the Oscar-winning gem of the short-lived Czech new wave, whose international success infuriated Moscow because of its thinly-veiled swipe at the Stalinist yoke.  Wholly anarchic, gently satirical and highly erotic, this was to be one of the movement’s last great works before the Prague Spring was so brutally extinguished by Leonid Brezhnev.

Finally, the train as a documentary subject.  Choose between the GPO Film Unit’s gently lyrical 1936 ‘Night Mail’ (with music by Britten and dum-de-dum poetic soundtrack by W H Auden); and the 1929 Soviet docuganda ‘Turksib‘, celebrating the construction of the trans-Siberian railway, which is to have a special Borderlines screening on Wednesday 16 May at Hellen’s, Much Marcle (tickets and timing from the Borderlines website).

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